The film may not have a message, but it does have hidden comments, like the Mexican cartoon character Superbarrio Gómez …
Yes, Superbarrio is a superhero and a fighter who was invented by the then opposition party as a figure battling on behalf of poor people against injustices like the housing shortage - a figure people could identify with. We used him to write a joint text about the city so that we could give the film a commentary without its having a commentary in the conventional sense.
He’s an absurd figure who pleads on behalf of the absurd. But he’s no less absurd than the almost surrealist white horse in the fog at the garbage tip …
It’s the same with us: there’s nothing so absurd as reality. A Giacometti sculpture at a garbage tip would be surrealist, but the horse is absolutely real. They use horse-drawn carts to collect the garbage, and fog is nothing unusual. Still, a casual visitor to the garbage tip wouldn’t happen upon this image. It takes time and an eye for that sort of thing. Maybe the directing approach has something to do with it. With a film of this kind I think you have to cram more into a picture than is actually there at any given moment if you want to say something about life. So you think this kind of „staging” approach is legitimate?
Invert the question, and you get a better answer. Every documentary is staged to some degree. It’s all a matter of finding the right degree.
You mean you fine-tuned this degree from city to city?
Yes. As I progressed from city to city I adopted an increasingly radical approach to the language of the documentary film - not least in response to practical constraints. When you’re filming people collecting garbage, you can just let the camera follow them. But documentary techniques don’t work if you want to portray a New York hustler accosting people on the street. Perhaps that’s a good example of what I meant by „getting people to portray themselves and their world”. Toni the Hustler told us how he did it and how people react, and then we went out and looked for a suitable actor who could improvise. We didn’t tell him what would happen but just hoped that what did happen would resemble the things that happened „in reality” when Toni got up to his tricks.
So the film changed drastically from the original idea to the finished product?
I very much hope so. An idea and an outline are something you have to have, but you can’t afford to stick to them and just go looking for what you want to find. You have to let yourself be seduced, „hustled”. Take Toni, for instance. He found me - hustled me.
The film runs the full gamut from a world that seems to us highly exotic to a world that’s growing ever more familiar.
True. And at the end of the film, the woman in the grocery store is precisely what we are. She’s my generation, my environment. This young woman summed it all up so beautifully in just a few sentences. Incidentally, to add one more comment on the staging of documentary films: we staged the talk show live and then visited all the people who appear in the film and who rang up and asked them to repeat the phone call they’d made during the radio programme. You can’t film in three places at once.
The „talk radio” sequence is a film style that perfectly matches New York. Was it a problem finding the right style for each city and still not losing track of the thread that runs through it all?
I’m not sure that we always managed to do that. At some stage I said: I’ll just take it as it comes and do things the way the individual stories want to go. It’s the elements that stayed the same which make up the film’s style. Dividing it into chapters highlights that. There’s a different language in each chapter. Toni is the only figure with an inner voice. But he was so eloquent it wouldn’t have made any sense to have portrayed him in the same way as, say, the taciturn garbage scavenger in Mexico. If I’d used the same stylistic approach all the way through, I would have been imposing something on the people which actually had nothing to do with them.